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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Nancy Cunard was made for the cover of the Book Review as it is edited today. She was fascinating to look at, at least when she was young; she had plenty of money, at least before she went through it; and she slept with a lot of famous writers and artists, at least until she settled down with Henry Crowder, an African-American musician, and took up the cause of Negro equality (as she would have called it). She also drank herself to death. The sometime mistress of Eliot, Pound, and Beckett, she is a modernist reading man's poster girl, which may be why we get not one but three photographs of her, one by Man Ray and two by Cecil Beaton. I waited for Caroline Weber's review to unearth something truly compelling, as distinct from "interesting," about Cunard, but she seems to have been famous primarily for her demons. 

In this week's Essay, "The Genius of Grover's Corners, Jeremy McCarter praises Thornton Wilder as an underappreciated and misunderstood playwright whose work is darker than is commonly supposed.

If Wilder had moped around in black, drunk himself into oblivion or - if you're feeling romantic - hanged himself like Simon Stimson, people might not have so much trouble finding that note of radical despair amid the bathos. But like Alfred Hitchcock (for whom he wrote the unmistakably Wilderian screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt), he confounded the popular image of the genius as a tortured, self-destructive soul.

The essay is occasioned by the publication, in the Library of America, of Wilders Collected Plays & Writings on Theater.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Ripple Effects: New and Selected Poems, by Elaine Equi. Floyd Skeet writes enthusiastically about this collection.

Her poems examine and enact the phenomenon of attentiveness. In doing so, they encourage readers to see anew the everyday things that fascinate the poet, showing us how "in brine daylight/thought becomes brimmed/Fraught with sudden,/steeped in listening.

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, by Giles Tremlett. According to Sarah Wildman's review, Mr Tremlett is "linguistically and socially integrated into Spanish life." She has some quibbles about dated sections, devoting a long paragraph to things that have changed since the books was published. She would do better to complain of the preposterous delays that keep British books from appearing in the United States.

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life, by Sari Nusseibeh. Leon Wieseltier's lengthy favorable review of this well-born Palestinian philosopher's meditations on the state of his homeland rattles with Agenda.

Yet there is nothing mean or heartless in Nusseibeh's writing about Israel. And there is much in his account of Israel's policies of occupation that should make Israelis and their supporters squirm. Since, insofar as one can believe in countries, Israel is one of the countries in which I believe, this book certainly made me squirm. The futility and the brutality of some of Israel's actions beyond its borders are abundantly clear. Not all of them, to be sure: though hideous as a matter of symbolism, the fence is effective as a matter of safety. But almost the entirety of the Israeli settlement of the West Bank has been a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions; and whereas it is difficult to gainsay the use of force against terrorists, the sowing of southern Lebanon with cluster bombs in the final hours of last summer's war was an act of genuine malignity.

But even more discomfiting than Nusseibeh's picture of the Israelis is his picture of the Palestinians.

Mr Wieseltier expressly insists that Mr Nusseibeh is not a "good Palestinian" - someone fundamentally sympathetic of Israel. He emerges from the review, however, as a genuine cosmopolitan.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons From the Life of Mohammed, by Tariq Ramadan. If Sari Nusseibeh's book explores a very local problem in Islam, Mr Ramadan's is global, proposing a global ethics, but Agenda rattles on. Stéphanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs, gets caught up in the argument about the sincerity of Mr Ramadan's writing in Western languages. (He is Swiss, but no translator is credited. He has been accused of saying rather different things in Arabic.)

Muhammad may not have been as sober and sensible as Ramadan writes, but why take issue with this portrayal if it can help reconcile Islam with Western liberalism today? The project that Ramadan states is his own is worth pursuing even if, for some, Ramadan himself cannot be entrusted with it.

Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, by Cait Murphy. Aha! you cry: a baseball book in among the Yeses! Well, this does seem to be the rare book about a sport that does anthropological justice to the game that, as Marilynne Robinson's beautiful Gilead suggested, ever able-bodied American male used to be ready to play at the drop of a hat. Perhaps it's George Will's very enthusiastic review.

Murphy's book is rich in trivia - not that anything associated with baseball is really trivial. Did you know, for example, that when the Yankees were still the Highlanders (they played at the highest point in Manhattan)[which can't be true] they adopted their interlocking NY lettering "based on the Tiffany design for the Police Department's Medal of Honor?"

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman. I don't want to know how doctors think. I want to know how doctors decide to prescribe. As somebody who owes his continued existence to medical resources that didn't exist thirty years ago, I see doctors as chemists, not diagnosticians. (Perhaps because what's wrong with me is not very mysterious.) Michael Crichton, a doctor himself once upon a time, surprises with a sensibly favorable review. Dr Groopman's pieces appear regularly in The New Yorker, and I never read them. I've got enough medicine in my life.

Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown. Nicholas Fox Weber's review of this account of working with two of the most iconic figures in experimental American dance approaches the reverential. I don't mean that in a bad way. An arresting paragraph about Merce Cunningham's agility is excerpted in full.

Only another dancer could capture Cunningham's extraordinary physical prowess, dexterity and deliberate emotional abandon. And only someone with Brown's intrinsic personal modesty and generous spirit could be so trenchant about the man who has enchanted but plagued her from then until now.

Mr Weber notes that Ms Brown is stronger and more interesting about dance than she is about painting, but if this is a failing, it's the most natural one in the world.

A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence e in America, by David Griffith. Christopher Sorrentino praises this "meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs."

To Griffith, such images should "have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day." It is the fact that we have "taken them into our heads" so utterly, so imperturbably, that concerns him. His objective in this, his first book, is to understand the sodden familiarity of the evidence of what took place at Abu Ghraib, and to grasp what he sees as our impoverished response to that evidence.

The review as a whole is ambiguous, faulting Mr Griffith for his arguments about postmodernity but in its very gravity suggesting that A Good War Is Hard to Find is a very important book that deserves bigger coverage.


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Second Child: Poems, by Deborah Garrison. In her ultimately unsympathetic review, Emily Nussbaum writes,

But even poems that seem clever the first time around dissolve, upon rereading, from simple to merely obvious. In "Sestina for the Working Mother," she salutes her own busy day, layered with a brief, sentimental fantasy of what it would be like if she stayed home - more NPR, more volunteerism.

Astrid & Veronika, by Linda Olsson. Ann Harleman writes,

By the halfway mark, it's the characters' voices that are keeping Ohlsson's readers going, not her irritating attempt to create suspense. And when the crucial revelations arrive, they're disappointing. ... Yet Astrid & Veronika survives this potential derailment because the braiding of the two women's voices is simply so beguiling.

The Art of Losing, by Keith Dixon. Natalie Moore's favorable review does not make it clear whether Mr Dixon's novel is strong genre fiction or a serious literary fiction about crimes and cons. In other words, has it been hauled out of the ghetto of the "Crime" column, or is it more a bleak morality tale?

Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, by Lois Gordon. Caroline Weber's slightly breathless review is a big piece of storytelling that engages with the book only long enough to announce that "Gordon does not editorialize." While I have no doubt that Cunard's story is important in the context of Women's Studies, its placement in the Book Review reeks of celebrity high-jinks, not scholarship.

Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty. David Leonhardt writes,

Unfortunately, the movement's steadily increased influence makes up only a small part of the story he hells. Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges that he has written "an insider's history," but it is also a sloppily written history.

The Red Parts: A Memoir, by Maggie Nelson. Eve Conant doesn't know quite to make of this memoir-at-one-remove. An attempt to terms with the murder of her aunt (she herself hadn't yet been born when it occurred), and then with the trial of an accused man thirty-five years later, The Red Parts alternates "between a narrative of the trial and a rambling exploration of her own life."

Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, by John R Bowen. Mitchell Cohen spends quite a lot of his review posing French counterarguments to Mr Bowen's assessment of French secularism. His unsympathetic review ends up being unhelpful. 


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, by Derek Zumsteg. Jim Bouton asks,

How does a book like this occur to someone in the first place? Once again, a clue can be found in the acknowledgments. "Thanks are due," Zumsteg writes, "to my agent, Sydelle Kramer, who was willing to help me figure out which book idea I could do well with, whip up a good proposal and find it a home."

Stacked: A 32DDD Reports From the Front, by Susan Seligman. From Ada Calhoun's review:

Seligson is likable, if for no other reason than that she's absolutely dizzy with admiration for her assets. The book's superficiality actually makes her point well: it's not just construction workers who are distracted by large breasts.



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